Kenya, Part II: Jump highest and get a free lady!

[See Kenya Part I: Jambo Kenya]

The Maasai villages still operate much the same as they did hundreds of years ago. That is, they live in small compounds, with their animals, practicing rituals and ceremonies that have been handed down over generations.

After a performance of a traditional Maasai dance at our game lodge, I was walking back to my tent with one of the porters (it’s dark and there are critters around) and he asked me how I liked the show. “Did you see me jumping?” he asked. The lodge employs Maasai workers both as a contract with the tribe and to add cultural panache to the fancy digs. “It was great”, I replied, not recognising him in his uniform. “Jump highest and get a free lady,” he said with a humungous grin.

I had some understanding around the Maasai practices of arranged marriage and also polygamy, that the community has input into both, including negotiating the bride price. Wealth is measured in cows and wives here, after all. So I asked him whether he got a free lady. Beaming, he said, “Yes. I jump the highest. I’m going to get another one.” 💖

Maasai men demonstrating a ritual dance in one of their villages.

Welcome to the Maasai Mara. This park covers nearly 16002 km, roughly the size of London, which sounds actually smaller than it felt being there. The savannahs seemed to go on forever, or at least to Tanzania, where the Maasai Mara connects with the Serengeti to form an inter-national animal migration route. So once again I felt as though I were in a postcard rather than seated in a Land Cruiser in the southwestern part of Kenya making photos of the place.

The objective, apparently, in the Maasai Mara, is to find big cats. And while I liked seeing leopards and lions lounging in the sun, I honestly preferred the elephants grazing gracefully with their still-fuzzy calves. I preferred the zebras grazing amid the long grasses, the sun painting a glowing carpet. I preferred the giraffes, with necks so long they looked like they were floating along the savannah like giant puppets. I preferred the rhinos for their prehistoric and surreal stature; the rhinos curiously watching, with their notoriously terrible eyesight, the tourist-filled Land Cruisers, as if we were long-lost relatives.

And there were the hippos. If you guessed that these were the deadliest African beasts, you’d be correct! In fact, hippos kill 40 times more people per year than sharks (even coconuts kill more people every year than sharks, but that’s a completely different argument!). The sad truth, however, is that if you include all types of fauna, the deadliest animal in Africa is still the mosquito.

But I digress. Watching the hippos from the bush lodge in the Maasai Mara was a fantastic lunchtime activity. The word hippopotamus comes from the Greek word meaning river horses, presumably because they spend so much time in the water, protecting themselves from the sun. But upon hearing their clamour one afternoon, I have a different theory…

Before Mt. Kenya was called as such, the Kikuyu people called the it Kĩrĩma Kĩrĩnyaga, loosely translated to ‘the area of the ostrich’, for its black rock and snow-capped peaks that resembled the awkward bird’s plumage. Once the Colonists arrived and simplified (read: bungled) the name, the land (and Mountain) was christened as Kenya.

The last day in the Maasai Mara was elephants and ostriches and secretary birds and hornbills and other savannah oddities, plus trains of wildebeests and hartebeests and zebras, bringing up the rear end of the Great Migration towards the Serengeti. And as much as I’d like to post even more of the thousands of frames I shot, I’ll wrap up with a few more of my favourites.

So while I saw exactly zero glimpses of Mt. Kenya, I left the Rift Valley feeling like I had been squarely in the area of the ostrich for some time. I’ll end with another reading list to paint a more vivid picture of the country from several different perspectives:

Kwaheri Kenya

Jambo, Kenya!

Here I was, on a plane much larger than anticipated, flying over Lake Victoria from Kigali to Nairobi. It was like crossing a small ocean, a giant black hole in the night with a lot of unknowns waiting on the lake’s eastern shores. During the flight, I was piecing together in my brain what I thought I knew about Kenya and its history, but memories of the hordes of elephants I saw in Botswana, and the near-misses of them in Rwanda only gave me elephant dreams commingled with fuzzy expectations for the week ahead.

My thoughts, as I wended my way through immigration, then baggage, at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, were that thankfully most airports everywhere function pretty much the same, whether in English or Swahili.

Truth be told, I prepared little for this trip. I signed up a mere 10 days before departure, visions of myriad wildlife and their Great Migration dancing in my head. I hastily arranged yellow fever and typhoid vaccines, solicited favors for airport runs and plant-sitting, packed, then departed, leaving my overwhelming reality behind if only for a couple of weeks. I hadn’t had time to consider the urban spaces dotting the beginning, middle and end of the adventure.

And so, landing in Nairobi was very different than arrival in Kigali. Nairobi is fairly large as cities go, with roughly the population of Sydney; 5x that of Kigali. The slick urban-ness of the place was a little jarring as we navigated through traffic from the airport into the city proper. Gone were the neatly cobbled streets and manicured roundabouts I’d come to adore in Rwanda. This was a City, and all vibes pointed to its wanting to be like New York or LA. Luckily, the first order of business the next morning was to get out and head for the Rift Valley. First stop: Lake Nakuru.

Much of Kenya is in the midst of its worst drought in decades. The dry, dusty and trash-strewn roads we were on are also truck routes, wending their way from the port of Mombasa through the ragged farmlands, to land-locked Rwanda and Uganda. Travelling these roads helped paint a clearer picture of some of the country’s struggles, not least of which is their high unemployment rate. Note: Although we were repeatedly told it is around 40%, which likely takes into consideration their high level of self-employment, and which official numbers don’t incorporate, I can’t find any statistics from the World Bank or elsewhere that puts unemployment there any higher than 5.7%. Even so, Kenya’s economy and livelihood has taken hits from all sides these past few years.

The fact that the water levels in the lakes of the Rift Valley are rising, apparently indifferent to the massive drought in progress, is a peculiar geological and climactic (and human-generated) paradox that we were about to encounter first-hand.


At 5 or 6x smaller than Akagera National Park in Rwanda, Lake Nakuru felt like it was teeming with life from the first moments we arrived. Between the fences surrounding the park (keeping animals in and poachers out) and the rising waters (Lake Nakuru is now 50% bigger than it was 10 years ago), habitat is getting squeezed; and, while excellent for wildlife watching, it could mean disaster for an ecosystem if the waters don’t recede soon. One of Lake Nakuru’s claims to fame is its massive flamingo population. They come to the lake because of its warm water and the algae that creates. The rising waters have decreased their population significantly (it was said that sometimes 1 million of the birds flocked here), but in the past couple of years, they have started to return.

So it was a little surreal, driving just from the park gates to our lodge: Buffalo galore, herds of antelope, zebras, giraffes, rhinos… and this was just on the main road. The lodge, nestled within the bounds of the park, was like an oasis overlooking the savannah, and beyond that, the lake itself, glowing a tad pink from the reflection of flamingos on the still water. I’d be remiss if I didn’t gush even a little bit about the lush grounds where the background music was weaver birds; the watering hole replete with visiting buffalo and zebra herds; the jungle huts from which you could hear the gruff sound of lions calling throughout the night…

On our first official safari drive in Nakuru, we spent an hour and a half watching a leopard monitor, then stalk, an impala, only to give up at the 11th hour. By the end of the 2nd day, the bingo cards were filled with all of the Big Five (so-named originally for the difficulty to kill and the danger they posed to the hunter: Lion, Leopard, Rhino, Elephant, Buffalo), as well as oodles of points for many of the other birds and critters I’d come to see. By the following day, I was itching to stay on there, but the lure of other parks including the Maasai Mara won out in the end. Also, transport.

Out of Africa, but still here.

Next stop on the itinerary was Lake Naivasha, a freshwater lake slightly south of Nakuru. Here, we stayed at a weird lodge with only enough electric fencing to keep out the hippos at night. Water buck and other critters seemed to have free reign of the area, so it was an interesting menagerie-cum-waterside camp experience. Here, too, the waters were very high, meaning that what used to be part of the lodge’s grounds was now part of the lake, and one could see the eerie skeletons of former acacia trees 20 or 30 metres off the shore. The kingfishers and other shorebirds were not complaining one bit.

The afternoon’s activity was to visit a place called Crescent Island, a tiny game reserve in the middle of the Lake. The adventure started with a boat ride over to the island, a scavenger hunt for hippos and crocs en route, and then a walking tour on the island in search of the giant African rock python. I say “in search of” because all we found was evidence, in the form of a massive shed snake skin. Turns out that Crescent Island was one of the many locations used for filming Out of Africa. Legend has it that they imported indigenous animals for the shoots and left them there, rehoming the predators so that the wildebeests and zebras and giraffes and impalas could flourish over time. But that was when Crescent Island was more of a peninsula, and the animals could come and go at will. With the rising waters, it had become an island sanctuary of sorts for the grazing animals, but with water levels recently receding, wily hyenas have made their way back to the island. It will be interesting to see what happens to the balance there if predators have access to this convenient buffet once again.

I’ll pause here to regroup, and to make the drive up out of the Rift Valley and on towards the pinnacle of the trip, the Maasai Mara.

To be continued…

Rwanda: Pays des mille collines.

Kigali, August 2022.

There is a law here that says every home must have an outside light. And so, as my travel-and-flight-bedraggled body was transported entre les mille collines from Kigali airport to the hotel at 3:30am, the twinkling lights in the valleys were like fireflies welcoming me to another dimension.

Even at this absurd hour, with a raging migraine, I had enough wits about myself to detect a sort of charm in the air intermingling with the semi-familiar scents of this continent: earth, wood fires, flowers, humans.

Even the driver, who had to wait at the airport for an additional 3+ hours due to the delays upon delays of my flight, met me with a smile, a hakuna matata and a warm welcome to his country, as if he genuinely has a stake in its future and an impact on how things go.

There’s history here, and much of it is not pretty. One cannot visit Rwanda without coming away knowing some new things (and perhaps weighing an equal number of questions) about the depths of human behaviour.

Rwanda’s history is intermingled with Colonialism, racism, classism and political corruption. It’s hard to just dip a toe into the history because there are so many moving parts, and I’m bound to leave out something significant or miss a step. This timeline outlines the events leading up to 1994.

The problem with Colonialism in general, and Rwanda’s case in particular, is that something of an African caste system had been invented through Western, white, stereotypes commingled with political whim and personal favours. So as Belgium helped build their government, they also managed to foment a systematic divide between Hutu and Tutsi (there wasn’t one, until a class structure was manufactured), helping neatly stack some of the kindling for what was to come.

  • In 1957, a document called the Buhutu Manifesto was published. It essentially outlined the racial divide in Rwanda and called for Hutu liberation.
  • In 1962, Rwanda gained Independence, installing Hutu leaders who set Tutsi quotas throughout the political, social and educational systems.
  • In 1990, the 10 Hutu Commandments was published in an anti-Tutsi newspaper called Kangura. This vile document added sparks to the kindling.
  • Between 1990-1994, Tutsis waged a civil war against the Hutu government. At the same time, Hutus targeted and killed Tutsis but not nearly at the same scale as what was to come. UN Peacekeepers were sent in.
  • On April 6th, 1994, President Habyarimana was assassinated.
  • On April 7th, 1994, the killings began in earnest. In 100 days, Hutus slaughtered 1 million Tutsis across this country roughly the size of Massachusetts. Friends murdered friends. Neighbours macheted neighbours. Members of the same church killed each other. The stories are horrific. This was not a war; it was a deliberate and unfathomable mission to completely annihilate a portion of the population. By hand.

This video, from the Kigali Genocide Memorial, helps explain.

The first full evening I spent in Kigali, as I was looking at the peaceful swimming pool in my hotel (Hôtel des Mille Collines), it dawned on me that this was the very same pool from which refugees of the mayhem happening outside its walls drank because the Interahamwe militia had shut the hotel’s water supply. I wondered who and how many my room had sheltered. I wondered if I could ever be as strong as those who witnessed and endured the ugliest side of mankind.

So it was fitting that one of the first places on our itinerary was the genocide memorial. It was sobering. 250,000 bodies are interred here, in this beautiful building surrounded by gardens and an amphitheater. What struck me were the stories. As you enter the place, you hear survivors’ accounts and their fears. As you leave, you hear the same individuals talking about how they and their country have grown. They talk about resilience and unity. They talk about forward momentum and forgiveness and not dwelling on the past while building a future that doesn’t let history repeat itself.

As it was before outsiders manufactured a pecking order, there are no tribes here, only humans.

I think it’s important for the developed world to understand what happened in Rwanda, and to remember that this happened in very modern times, 50 years after the Holocaust, under the watch of Western nations who failed at their primary task of ensuring peace. It’s also important to see how this tiny country picked itself up and focused on bringing wrongdoers to justice and healing itself.

Kigali, now, is a vibrant, clean spotless, energetic city, bubbling with infrastructure projects and plastered with billboards inviting ecotourism. The government is running water lines to remote villages, installing streetlights on all the major roads, promoting education (Rwanda has 72% literacy rate, which is outstanding for a developing nation), vaccination efforts (the nurse at the travel clinic I visited before my trip said they had an 80% COVID vaccination rate!) and wildlife conservation.

Rwanda is called the land of mille collines, a thousand hills. The green of the trees contrasts against the rich terracotta soil; the hillsides are terraced with banana palms and lush fields; the Virunga mountains, dormant volcanoes that loom large in the mist, mark the edges of the land like a dam holding back the wilderness like a verdant sea that wants to spill out.

As we reached the Northern Province, home to Volcanoes National Park and the Virunga Mountains, it felt a little Jurassic Park-ish, and I could see Dian Fossey’s enchantment with the place. It feels as though you’ve landed in a sort of wild and magical spot. Some of the best ways to describe Rwanda, especially the mountains, are sensual: It sounds like birdsong emerging from a deep silence. It smells like jasmine and campfires and petrichor. It tastes like an autumn garden, rooty vegetables and earthy spices. It feels like a tapestry of bark and bamboo and mountain mist. The many shades of green and earth and clay could fill a box of crayons.

In this semi-enchanted state, we headed out early in the morning to see the nature. Trek #1 was to find golden monkeys. With fewer than 3,000 remaining in the wild, golden monkeys are as protected as the mountain gorillas. So with armed rangers leading our expedition (to ward off buffaloes, we were told), we took off to see the little rascals. It wasn’t much of a trek, if I’m honest, because the rangers found the troop of monkeys at the edge of the forest moments before they (the monkeys) decided to raid the bordering field of unharvested potatoes. So instead of a game of hide and seek in the trees, we were treated to a view of the monkeys’ ingenuity and harvesting prowess. 10 points for use of tools and those opposable thumbs. If only humans looked at each other the way these golden monkeys look at their harvest! 😍

That night was one of the highlights of the trip for me. The new headquarters of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Rwanda opened earlier this year, courtesy of a grant from Ellen DeGeneres (apparently a birthday present from Portia!). The evening culminated with a talk by one of the organization’s scientists and a representative from the institute. It was a wonderful couple of hours of Q&A with cocktails and snacks, talking about gorilla conservation efforts, whetting our appetite for the gorilla trek we were to do the next morning.

Protection of the gorillas is a high priority for the Rwandan government, so they partner closely with environmental groups like the Gorilla Fund to manage the health of the ecosystem and the safety of the animals themselves from poaching and human-animal contact. First, we were required to take a COVID PCR test prior to going to Volcanoes National Park, as mountain gorillas share 98% of human DNA and even one COVID infection could easily spread and wipe out an entire family.

There are 20 mountain gorilla families in Volcanoes National Park, and 12 of which are habituated enough to humans that the government permits just one hour of human contact per family per day. Therefore, to secure a permit and a time slot with the gorillas requires a steep permit fee, a bit of luck, and some negotiating amongst the guides. Mountain gorillas are always on the move, so the rangers set out early in the morning to find the various gorilla families, for both tourism and conservation efforts. They report back to the guides so the daily schedules can be fixed. Seems like a complicated process but it works! We were assigned to the Sabyinyo family, a large group with 2 silverbacks (huge adult males) and a mixture of black backs (teenage males), adult and juvenile females and babies and a moderate-level hike to reach them. Except for one gnarly section of trail, where our group’s porters had to help us maneuver down a treacherous and muddy slope, we had a fairly easy time getting to the spot in the crater where our gorilla family was lounging for the day.

Who knew that seeing mountain gorillas at such close range would feel like being a voyeur at someone else’s party? Guhonda, the huge silverback, the gentle and diplomatic father. We spent an hour watching him guard the lair as the other silverback plus their assorted wives, sisters, mistresses and children ate and frolicked in the jungle underbrush.

Every year, Rwanda celebrates Kwita Izina, the annual naming ceremony for the past year’s new baby gorillas. It is a grand event and I’m just sad we were about 5 days too early to witness it live, as celebrities from all over the world are invited to name baby gorillas. The new entrant from the Sabyinyo group is a male called Impanda, meaning Trumpet. According to the Rwanda Development Fund, the name was chosen to serve as a call to action for us all to play our part in protecting and restoring biodiversity.

Momma gorilla wrestles with baby

We rounded out the Rwanda part of the trip with a visit to Akagera National Park. Shortly after entering the park, we stopped to observe a massive owl in a mossy tree. Later, I would find out that it is a Verreaux’s eagle owl, the largest owl in Africa. At the time, it felt like that one bird held the park’s secrets, perhaps all the secrets.

After the genocide, nearly all of Rwanda’s wildlife was decimated. So the government, in an effort to rebuild both a natural habitat for Rwanda’s indigenous wildlife and create a destination for tourism, partnered with the NGO African Parks to breathe life back into this swath of land and repopulate flora and fauna. It currently boasts a population of both black and white rhinos, lions, elephants, giraffes, buffaloes and assorted gazelles and the like. Their K9 squad, foot patrols and radio tracking help keep poaching at bay and helps them create a safe space for these endangered animals. Hearing the rangers talk about protecting the park and its growth from essentially nothing, it wasn’t hard to see the passion for reinvention and forward momentum shining in their eyes as well.

I didn’t at all know what to expect when I landed in Kigali, but left feeling both heavier and lighter, and with a pang of sadness at the airport, a hope that I’d come back someday: to see more of the forests in the Northern Territory, to witness an expansion of Akagera and see a larger habitat for their blossoming wildlife populations, to see chimpanzees in Nuyngwe National Park, to see more of the sparkling lights in the valleys and smell the jasmine in the jungle-y air.

These are a few books I’ve read about Rwanda and its history, that I’d highly recommend:

Africa finale: One last safari

[Part I: Kalahari before the safari]  [Part II: Into the Okavango]

[Part III: The magic of elephants]

I’ve been home for a week and a half now, and been asked what was your favourite part? more times than I can count. It’s hard to summarize in a photo or one hundred. What I’ll never be able to share adequately is the sheer enormity of Africa, even the enormousness of the very small piece of it I visited for such a short time (the nearly 2000km travelled in 8 days covered just the tip of one country). What words can’t rightly describe is that Africa has its own pulse. It’s in the music of the savannahs, the air, trees, animals and soil. Somehow, this energy works itself into yours and begins to infuse into your veins its vibrant blood orange sunrises, its pomegranate sunsets. The wild sage perfume on the air permeates your senses while rustling bush fuses with birdsong and erases the idiocy of first world problems in the back of your brain.

We’d spent the morning on a safari drive in Chobe National Park…the scores of eles and giraffes, antelopes, baboons and all manner of avian creature dancing on our brains. It’s hard to digest one’s first safari: I resented the jeeps – I’d rather walk these trails even though I know I’d be a lion snack before lunchtime. And I resented the other safari vehicles spoiling the view, disturbing the peace, touristing where I wanted to get deeper into nature. And at the same time, the vantage point was fabulous; as were the loaner cameras with 400mm lenses. The guy who texted our driver to let him know where to find the lion: super-cheesy but worth the shots I was able to get.

It’s with this tingle of seeing Africa up close still resonating that we enter Zimbabwe. We’ve survived the 2-hour (that-could-easily-have-been-4-without-help) wait to get visas and cross at the Kazungula border post. Finally free to proceed, we work our way down the road through Zambezi National Park, which is cool because again there are no fences, and the elephant, ostrich, giraffe, zebra (etc.) sightings have yet to get old.

Next stop Victoria Falls, one of the 7 natural wonders of the world.

Since it is our last day together, my friend and I decide to splurge on the long version of the helicopter tour over the Falls. We’ve been in Zimbabwe for exactly an hour and we’ve set off on foot down to Vic Falls. I won’t comment on political affairs here because I’d like to go back to the country someday; suffice to say that their economy is in freefall, as evidenced by the billion-dollar bills being hawked by trinket-sellers as we walk. This strikes me as a sadly ironic incongruity to the modern shops and cafés (the likes of which we had not seen in a week), as we walk through town to meet the ride to the helipad. Also not lost on me: a billion Zimbabwean dollars will not buy a loaf of bread; in fact, their currency has been entirely demonetised.

African masks on offer at the local market

The affable heli pilot gets us situated: I’m in front, as it’s my first-ever helicopter ride; clear windows top to bottom! I can’t wipe the “OMG-this-is-so-much-fun” grin off my face as we do figure-eights over the exquisite (understatement!) Victoria Falls and the adjacent canyons (collectively, Batoka Gorge) on the Zambia/Zimbabwe border. I want to go exploring here (Calvin, are you game? 😏), I think as we fly over the gorge-ous rock walls, then swing over Zambezi National Park for a quickie aerial safari (elephant, giraffe, wildebeest, check!), and we’re back where we started. Wonder: wondrous! Heroin-esque adrenaline pumping, I somehow resist temptation to blow the trip budget and do it again. Afterwards, I’m saddened to hear about a hydroelectric dam project that is slated for this area, threatening endangered species and adventuring in one fell swoop. I’m told that Nyaminyami, the Zambezi River god, is not at all amused.

And just like that, the trip, proper, ends with a group dinner, local beer and a singing/dancing performance by a Zimbabwean performing arts club, the adorable and talented Umkhankaso Wamajaha. They have us dancing and laughing, enjoying this last night.

I’ve said my goodbyes (Bis zum nächsten mal mein freund) and my flight isn’t until the following afternoon, so I’ve decided to go back into Botswana for a full day of land and water safaris at Chobe.

The jeep, a little less cushy; the air, a little crisper; the safari drive begins slowly – animals opting to sleep in just a bit until the sun comes out and releases the chill from the day. We wend our way through many of the same trails we passed a couple of days earlier and I recognise some of the landmarks: a sun-bleached elephant skeleton, a fish eagle nest (with occupants!), the trail that runs along the river, where we see hippos and giraffes and warthogs and a plethora of birds foraging for brekkie in the warming morning.

And as if on cue, the sky brightens and we come across a pair of young elephants playing and eating on a tree close to the trail. As we slow, one of the eles takes interest in our vehicle and with a teenager’s confidence begins walking slowly but surely towards us. Even young, this animal is taller than the jeep, and so I am on eye-level as s/he approaches, stops, and watches me/us in what seems playful amusement, a couple of metres from the vehicle. A warning from our driver: do not move quickly. Do not say anything. We wait, collective breath held, to see what happens next.

And what happens next is Africa magic.

I have no idea how to determine the sex of a young elephant (they say it has something to do with the indentation on the forehead), so whether this is a mating rite or a male dominance display, I do not know. What I do know is that it was magnificent: after intimidating this big thing in the road (us), the smaller ele walks in front of the jeep, then across the road to a small clearing, the larger one (male, I’ve surmised) following. In a dance-cum-duel, the pair pauses time with a soft and slow forehead-to-forehead, trunk twisting ritual, never releasing eye contact during the minutes they remain locked in this posture. It is sensual and sweet, powerful and emotive. I’m certain they’re communicating by touch; elephant telepathy. When they are finished passing the wisdom of ages to each other, they resume their defoliation of the nearest tree. We make our way out of the park, energies transferred to this ardent devotee as well. The safari ends on the highest of notes.

Chobe River, redux.

We board the small boat after lunch, much smaller than that of our river safari some nights before. At first, I lament the size; but once we’re on the river I quickly realise this craft will be able to sneak us so much closer to wildlife in the marshy areas at the island’s fringes.

The wildlife here on the Chobe River does not disappoint. Between this morning and this afternoon, we’ve played safari bingo, with but one space remaining for the win: elephants and giraffes in their lofty elegance; warthogs rooting about as if they’ve lost something precious, or scrumptious, in the mud; hippos looking like small tanks on the riverbank; antelopes of every size and shape: impala, kudu, steenbok, sable, waterbuck… Birds of every class and colour: cormorants and cranes; guinea fowl and kingfishers; oxpeckers and African jacanas cleaning hippos, spoonbills hunting for fish, egrets and storks and fish eagles and the spectacular little lilac breasted roller. Still evading us is the stealthy African lion.

We’re in the marsh watching some cape buffalo at close range. The sun is getting lower in the sky, signaling that we would soon need to turn back towards the dock. I’m wishing this day would not end, because that signals the end of my African safari days as well. As this thought surfaces, we see a group of impalas and some warthogs on the opposite riverbank suddenly take flight, running en masse away… We’ve all seen some Nat Geo special or another and know to look towards what they are running from. We see nothing until we’re just about to pull away; farther down the riverbank, two logs take shape in the form of young (and, as the guide explains, inexperienced) lionesses.

One stays put. The other begins a casual-cat stroll towards where the impalas were. She slinks, then she waits. And as she waits, a small group of sable antelope appear (also where the impalas were) and apparently either don’t care or don’t notice the not-small cat watching them. Step by step, she creeps closer (and closer to us, which is spellbinding from our vantage point). As if mocking her gorgeous but clearly not skillful hunt, the antelopes slowly migrate closer to the bush until they are out of reach.

With a very housecat “I meant for that to happen” air, she does a graceful about-face, stretches, and checks in with an “are you in or are you out?” look to her partner before pointing herself towards the buffalo (again, even closer to us!). Cat #2 is not impressed, nor does she move. Kitten #1 is uninspired after all this posturing, assesses the cape buffalo situation (each out-weighs this cat by at least 300%) and decides to take a siesta in the long grass to further consider her options.

This cat-and-not-quite-mouse game could go on for the better part of the evening, so we leave the marsh; we’ve already overshot our departure time by an hour and we’ve got to be back to the Zimbabwe border by 6 to make it through Zambezi National Park before dark. If the thought of hitting a deer crossing the road back home is frightening, consider the prospect of hitting an elephant or wildebeest; except in an emergency, the locals do not drive this road at night (a group of foreigners waiting on a lion does not constitute an emergency).

It’s with this on-the-edge, semi-fulfilled, almost-ecstatic-but-still-really-fantastic feeling we return via the Namibia side of the river, boarding the safari vehicles that will take us back to the border crossing (multiple-entry visas in hand, this crossing is significantly less traumatic than the first) and through the national park as the sky is on the brink of sunset.

I sleep this last night feeling full and sated, from both dinner and sensory overload from the spectacular day; not looking forward to the hours and hours I’ve got ahead of me, bouncing from Vic Falls to Joburg to Doha and finally to Boston, bedraggled, a full day later.

It’s a little bit absurd, looking back at this trip and trying to explain the experiences without sounding like a braggart or like I’m blowing it out of proportion, when in truth I don’t feel worthy of this place. Like India in impact, Botswana was dust wrapped in colours and shapes and smells, its nature is something I’ll never be able to describe without visual aids. There is no light where I’m from that rivals sunset on the savannah. There is nothing wild I’ll see back home that compares to the sight of a mother elephant shuttling her baby across the river while he sprays water in playful objection.

I’m drawn to places that make me humble, that make me feel the enormity of the natural world, that demonstrate the fragility and the impermanence of being, that make me realise my mere speck-ness in the Universe…

How do you thank a place for adding texture to your existence?

[Part I: Kalahari before the safari]  [Part II: Into the Okavango]

[Part III: The magic of elephants]